Humans of Poughkeepsie is an ongoing project seeking to highlight Poughkeepsie residents and community members.
Below, Darrett Roberts shares his story. Roberts is a member of the End the New Jim Crow Action Network (ENJAN), a group of Hudson Valley residents working toward local criminal justice reforms. He is also a member of the Dutchess County Progressive Action Alliance (DCPAA), a grassroots organization dedicated to promoting community activism in Dutchess County. He retired from his job in providing care for the elderly and those with mental disabilities for the Taconic Developmental Services in 2012.
I really started my activism when I was working. I had so many different people who were liberal or completely conservative. And like I said about the cliques, sometimes you have to interact with them. They’re your coworkers. And so I learned which way to go—I’d play in the middle. It was for your best health in a survival sense. I always liked to listen to the other side anyway. In that environment, it was good to listen and observe and see. I happened to learn how to use my instincts about certain people. And it had its good side and its bad side. The good side was that you made friends and you got to know a new environment and become friends with new people. The bad side was that the work itself was very stressful. You’re like a home health aid. If you’ve ever worked in a hospital setting, it can really get to you, especially if you’re working with [intellectually disabled] people … You had to do complete care for them. And you do it year in and year out. You had to detach your emotions because you might like a patient particularly well and then they pass away. And you just have to work through it. You’d have to detach yourself to be able to cope. I’m 62. I worked there for 32 years. That’s almost half my life. It was an experience of a lifetime that you never forget.
Most of what you’d hear from the patients was taught by them from the people before. So, you might hear some racial slurs, which you’d have to have a thick skin for. But then you realized that it wasn’t them using it, it was taught to them long ago. And when you do activism you also have to have thick skin because things can get to you.
Nothing is impossible. When I was very young, in my teens, my body was very thin, I was very shy. I didn’t think I would amount to anything. Now, people are saying I’m a big activist and a leader in the community. You wouldn’t have known me about three years ago. I was different. So, my advice would be don’t short yourself. You can accomplish anything. I’m the proof.
I was working at Taconic Developmental Services. I started in 1980 and retired in 2012. That was hands-on care. I was taking care of the patients there—washing them, feeding them, basically doing what they can’t do. Working with them, you get insight into how their lives were. You also got a feel for how the employees were. In that kind of environment, sometimes you never knew who was your friend and who was your enemy. After a few years, you get a sense of who was gonna be your friend and who was out to get rid of you. There was a clique. And if you’re not in that clique, it can be very lonely and frustrating.
I read a lot of books. I’ve been reading about politics, conservatism, political action, all of that. You can learn so much from people, but you also have to have a little understanding of where they’re thinking. And the best way you can do that is with a book. But when you get down to the nitty-gritty, you still have to learn from people. No book can give you everything. You need another human mind.
I’m not really a leader. My thing is that I’m a bridge-builder. I like to connect people and organizations together. When I see other people succeed and I’ve helped them out in a little way, that’s my vision of success. I don’t look out for me, I look out for other people. I want them to succeed, especially if they win an office seat. They then can help other people. All I can do is be one voice, but they have an opportunity to have an impact on other people’s lives.